ADHD in adults is harder to spot and more complex, advocate says

Attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is often associated with children, particularly boys, but that's only half the story.

Symptoms vary from person to person

The symptoms of ADHD can vary widely from person to person, according to Heidi Bernhardt, founder of the Centre for Awareness of ADHD in Canada. (Shutterstock)

Attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is often associated with children, particularly boys, but that's only half the story, according to an advocate.

Heidi Bernhardt, founder of the Centre for Awareness of ADHD in Canada (CADDAC), said ADHD is present in many adults. The problem is that many doctors don't know what to look for when diagnosing it.

"You need a trained physician to be able to not just jump at the first conclusion and say, 'Oh you're depressed,' and put you on antidepressants," she said.

"If they're not trained to look for it, they're not going to see it."

Another issue is young girls being underdiagnosed, Bernhardt said. Boys with the disorder are pretty easy to spot in a classroom, as they are often the ones acting out, unable to sit still or focus.

"We miss diagnosing young girls because ADHD comes in a lot of different presentations," said Bernhardt. 

"These girls are often quiet, daydreamers, or might commonly misplace things or be forgetful, and can appear withdrawn."

Adult ADHD more complex

Bernhardt also said it's a myth that children grow out of ADHD. Boys may become less hyperactive, but that doesn't mean the disorder has gone away. She said two-thirds of children diagnosed with ADHD will still have symptoms in their adulthood.

As someone reaches adulthood with undiagnosed ADHD, other issues can present themselves.

"We get the more complex sort of ADHD in adults, which comes with anxiety, depression and other mental health disorders," Bernhardt said.

People can receive a lot of negative messages about their behaviour, she said.

"They get called lazy and disorganized," she said. "These labels can become quite depressive, and if you are told that often enough you'll believe it."

Heidi Bernhardt is a psychiatric nurse by training, a mother of three and the founder of the Centre for ADHD Awareness Canada (CADDAC). (Submitted by Heidi Bernhardt)

A sudden change in routine, such as a retirement, can be particularly difficult for someone with ADHD, Berhardt said.

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused this type of disruption for many people.

"When their routine changes or dissolves, then all of a sudden the ADHD impairments become more apparent," Bernhardt said. 

What are the signs?

Recognizing ADHD in adults can be more difficult, according to Bernhardt.

She said symptoms can vary from person to person. They can include hyperactivity, forgetfulness, inability to pay attention, tendency to pay too much attention to one thing, a racing mind, daydreaming, lack of impulse control, conflicting thoughts and easy distraction.

"There's a saying that goes with this disorder. Once you've seen one case of ADHD, you've seen one case of ADHD," she said.

What can you do if you think you have ADHD?

Bernhardt said it starts with educating yourself.

She recommended going to a website that offers medically accredited information.

"Once you start reading, either the light bulb will go off or you'll realize you don't have this," she said.

She also suggests seeking help from a doctor who understands ADHD.

Bernhardt said things such as meditation can help. There is also medication available.

With files from the Afternoon Edition


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